Michelle Zauner may make dream-pop and rock music under the moniker Japanese Breakfast, but it seems her true reverence is for Korean culture — which makes up half of her lineage. It steams from the pages of her first book and memoir, Crying in H Mart, like a sizzling plate of spicy bulgogi. Korean food serves as her first link to an identity, with culinary cultivation being as elemental to her development as oxygen is to the brain. Through a bevy of seamless vignettes around cuisine, familial heartbreak, and wry humor, Zauner illuminates the quirks and mystique of Korean culture with a biographer’s rigor and a grandparent’s humor.
The book originated as a 2018 New Yorker article of the same title, then written by a 29-year-old Zauner. With unpretentious and striking prose, she details her visits to H Mart, a Korean-American supermarket chain, and how they resulted in her spontaneously sobbing in the aisles. The banchan refrigerators, the containers of tart kimchi, the packets of Chang Gu honey-crackers — they all reminded her of her Korean mother, who passed away from a tumultuous battle with stage IV pancreatic cancer in 2014. These H Mart tears sparked the Proustian impetus for her broader memoir: a captivating account of Zauner’s rapturous connection with food, her struggles growing up half-Korean in Eugene, Oregon, and her tangled, tragic journey to understanding her mother.
Zauner’s mother, Chongmi, was not a “Mommy-Mom.” According to Zauner, that’s the kind of (usually white) mom who always praises her child’s school art projects, no matter how busted; she rushes her kids to the doctor at the first flicker of sickness and always shows her love through big, warm hugs and I love yous. Chongmi — a South Korean native who moved to America at 25 after marrying Zauner’s Jewish father — was a Korean mother to the bone. If little Michelle scraped herself falling from a tree, her mother “was livid, as if I had maliciously damaged her property.”
In little Michelle’s elementary school years, her mother feared she was growing too short so she concocted a remedy. Each morning before school, she would instruct little Michelle to grasp her bed’s headboard while she pulled on her little legs, hoping she’d stretch to Gumby-like proportions. “Hers was tougher than tough love,” Zauner remembers. “It was brutal, industrial-strength.” Here and all throughout the book, Zauner kindles verve from old memories. She rarely overwrites or sentimentalizes — she’s a writer of plainspoken elegance.
The reader gets the impression that Zauner could fish from an ever-replenishing pool of odd couple-style anecdotes about our PNW-raised, guitar-strumming author and her fastidious, hardline-Korean mother. It’s a buzzing dynamic that’s frequently interesting, sometimes frustrating, and often enlightening — especially for non-Korean readers. There is indeed a rebellious teen-turned starving musician narrative in which Chongmi becomes tangled. That trope may sound familiar to anyone on the far side of 25. However, Zauner freshens the growing pains tale, especially when her beauty-fixated, classily oddball mother is involved.
Throughout her childhood, Zauner wanted so badly to please Chongmi — with an unhealthy household cleaning compulsion, gripping her mother’s skirt for dear life. But once Zauner began to form an interest in indie music and crumpled under relatable teenage baggage, the points of commonality between them disintegrated. Even so, there was always something that bonded the two of them, which clearly still remains.
“Food was how my mother expressed her love,” Zauner says. Chongmi delighted in mentoring her daughter on the proper portion of gochujang sauce for her bibimbap. Inheriting family recipes in Korean households, as Zauner tells it, comes with a particular, traditional learning curve. “Korean people tend to disavow measurements and supply only cryptic instructions along the lines of ‘add sesame oil until it tastes like Mom’s.’”
As we gradually glean, Western compulsions of routine and rigidity are nowhere to be found in Korean food culture. “The concept of prepping meals for the week was a ludicrous affront to our lifestyle,” she describes. “We chased our cravings daily.” Zauner’s mother and sisters cheered for little Michelle when she courageously swallowed a freshly severed octopus tentacle at a Seoul fish market. Chongmi later delighted when Zauner’s boyfriend slurped down one briny Korean delicacy after another at a meet-the-parents dinner, exclaiming “He eats like a Korean!”
With her mother’s atypical criteria for affection ingrained upon the reader, Zauner deeply immersed herself in one of the universal signs of love: namely, food. Zauner has a talent for describing a dish totally foreign to westerners — a comforting doenjang jjigae, a hearty, street-vended tteokbokki — and infusing their descriptions so vividly, their savory scents fill our nostrils.
Zauner paints these meals with Studio Ghibli-levels of succulence. In Korea, after a motorcycle deliveryman was buzzed into her aunt’s building to a MIDI tune of Beethoven’s “Für Elise,” he would slip the metal box of food through the door’s sliding flap “and deliver heaping bowls of noodles and deep-fried battered pork with its rich sauce on the side. The plastic wrap on top would be concave and sweating. We’d peel it off and dribble black, chunky goodness all over the noodles and pour the shiny, sticky, translucent orange sauce over the pork. We’d sit cross-legged on the cool marble floor, slurping and reaching over one another.”
Korean food, and the sharing of it, inheriting its generational wonders, is a language all its own in Crying in H Mart. Whenever Zauner and her parents visited Chongmi’s family in Seoul, she felt the sharp pain of identity insecurity; she didn’t speak Korean. However, food is a language Koreans keenly speak. After the death of Zauner’s mother, Nami, her mother’s sister, sought solace in her niece despite not speaking English herself. Zauner yearned to tell her aunt about her strained relationship with her Korean identity, how desperately she wanted to feel like a real Korean, how she felt that part of her died with Chongmi. But this was too much for a clunky translation app to convey, “so I quit halfway through and just reached for her hand and the two of us went on slurping the cold noodles from the tart, icy beef broth.”
One of the most gripping themes of Zauner’s memoir is her struggle to both define and embrace an identity. She was born in Seoul, but her family immigrated to the States before she was a year old. Through elementary school in Oregon, she endured the typical schoolyard questioning: Are you Chinese? Are you Japanese? Well, what are you then? Not even her mother saw her daughter as she saw herself. But you’re not Korean, she told her. You’re American.
Her dilemma is both affecting and concise — too Korean for the whites, too white for the Koreans. The interplay between Zauner’s adolescent shame around her heritage and her adult wish to be accepted as Korean inspires sincere empathy. She ultimately reaches some contentment not only through familial closeness, but with the guidance of a fairy godmother-like luminary (who’s too delightful to spoil here).
The first time Michelle Zauner heard “the Korean sob” was when Chongmi returned home from her own mother’s funeral. Umma, Umma, she wailed, the Korean word for “mother,” as her body buckled to the floor. Zauner describes the Korean sob as “guttural and deep and primal.” She defines it with a musician’s ear and an unsettling taxonomic eye: “A pained vibrato that breaks apart into staccato quarter notes, descending as if it were falling off a series of small ledges.” In Zauner’s telling, Koreans discover ecstasy in eating, preparing, and sharing meals with cherished company like few others on earth can. But they also experience grief so charged and operatic, their heightened senses of the world can feel like a curse. Zauner’s vibrant characterizations of Korean life — from kimchi preparation to regional humor to processing tragedy — will endure as one of her book’s greatest strengths.
On surface-level inspection, one might categorize Crying in H Mart as a sort of melodrama: a coming-of-age tale of a free-spirited daughter and a baffled mother reaching an understanding through cuisine, ultimately cut short by tragedy. However, that classification would do a grave disservice to Michelle Zauner’s immense talent as a writer and storyteller of quotidian dramas. Her natural abilities for written expression are made more impressive by her age and relative inexperience as an author.
Few literary details are spared when the book transitions to a more mature Zauner, as she’s helping her cancer-diagnosed mother back in Eugene. Zauner’s account, while tinged with hope and beauty, is also a harrowing plummet — the Korean sob brought to life.
Chongmi was once known for her lotioned hands, always wearing a coat of skin cream like a glove — a titan of self-image. When chemotherapy began, and as clumps of her hair fell into the bathtub while Zauner gently scrubbed away, Chongmi caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. “The same mirror where I’d watched her apply cream after cream to preserve her taut, flawless skin. The same mirror where I’d find her trying on outfit after outfit, runway walking with perfect posture, examining herself with pride, posing with a new purse or leather jacket.” She didn’t recognize herself in this nightmarish new reality.
In the later stages, Zauner and her father milled about the house in bundled angst, always listening, and wondering if today was finally the day. “The house was quiet aside from her breathing, a horrible sucking like the last sputtering of a coffee pot.”
As with the most resonant mortal dramas, Zauner subverts the domestic environment we’ve intimately grown to know into a stagnant, fractured image of its former comfort, draining the color of its previously broad and lively complexion. Cancer’s ravages on the human body and mind that most would never care to know or imagine are present in granular depiction. It’s difficult to contend with, but no less gripping and admirable. The arc of the book's narrative leans toward positivity, of course — look where Zauner ended up — but life’s cruel randomness took its toll.
A realization blooms when Zauner sits down to write Chongmi’s eulogy. She reflects on belittling her mother’s roles as housewife and mother when she was a teenager. Zauner realized that even though Chongmi embodied those titles, she also encompassed many more. “Her art was the love that beat on in her loved ones, a contribution to the world that could be just as monumental as a song or a book. There could not be one without the other. Maybe I was just terrified that I might be the closest thing she had to leaving a piece of herself behind.” What a piece she left. What a feast she prepared. Zauner’s story will no doubt become a cherished literary balm for children of Korean parents who suffer from their own forms of parental dissonance.
The power of healing in late realizations is particularly bittersweet with Crying in H Mart. A year after Chongmi’s death, after recording her first successful album as Japanese Breakfast, Zauner toured the world and played a headline show in her native city of Seoul with her extended family in attendance. A packed house of teenagers goes positively bananas for the band. Their sweaty palms grip vinyl sleeves of the album, an idyllic old photo of Chongmi and a friend serving as the cover. Was this the same Zauner who used to think the music industry didn’t have room for another half-Korean front-woman, since Karen O already fronted the Yeah Yeah Yeahs? It turns out the world could make room for another half-Korean rockstar, and gleefully so. It now welcomes an inspiring, singular new author, as well.